The improvement in battery technologies will not solve the electric mobility issue

Battery-based solutions are useful for electric mobility. But when you expect too much from the technology, you tend to forget that physics is what it is, i.e. harsh and inescapable, and the economics of the system has its own laws too, as much harsh and inescapable.

In 2005, the average cost of kWh for Lithium-Ion batteries felt under the 500 $ mark. Since, that cost flattens, we reached the cost asymptote. What continues to improve, slowly and constantly, without any major breakthrough, is the energy density in Wh/kg.

In other words, the cost of batteries cannot lower any longer, but the quantity of energy that you get for the same weight softly increase every year. But to say batteries are to win the electric mobility challenge would be going too far, and that’s a conclusion many jump to, joyfully. Except that if you only increase the energy density, yes you get more range, but you do not reduce the charging time, you proportionally increase it. You will need much more than 8 hours for a full home-based recharging.

There again, some enthusiasts will say: no problem! Let’s deploy even more powerful ultra-fast charging infrastructure! For example, the recently announced “Ultra E” European project envisions the deployment of 25 ultra-fast 350 kW charging stations. But what is the thermal behaviour of a Lithium-Ion battery under such power? We already knew via large Research Institutions that the fastest you recharge the batteries, the more you reduce the life cycle of the batteries, in terms of number of charging cycles.

According to many specialists of the Lithium-Ion technology, the increase of stored energy density is a risk, as well as the fast charging, called by the consumers, which results in a “excessive heating of the battery, an accelerated degradation of the materials, a premature end of life, and above all, it increases the risk to generate an internal short circuit due to the breach of the separator between electrodes which can start a fire and an explosion of the battery”. This is what happened to the Galaxy Note 7.

At 350 kW, will we see the first firing of electric cars in the public areas? Knowing that a Lithium-Ion fire cannot be extinguished, fire brigades can only cover it with two tons of sand and wait 48 hours that it calms down…

Although, this is not the only problem. The most important issue, in economic terms, is that electric grids are not sized to see a wide spread of such ultra-fast, high power-demanding charging stations. We are talking here about power calls equivalent to a large block of flats or houses, instantly, just for one car. What is the cost of the electric grid strengthening to support such power demand, and to be added to very costly charging stations? From few dozens of euros up to millions depending on the spot, the length of the network to strengthen, the variable cost of civil engineering (urban versus rural)…

Today, power utilities are already struggling to find the billions of euros necessary to repair and maintain the existing grid, what about upgrading the network to please Elon Musk and the likes! Shall we need to deploy very costly NaS battery storage to support the grid, wherever we’d like to support fast and ultra-fast grid of car charging stations?

A new European Environment Agency report concluded that the growth in electric vehicle use will result in extra energy demand in the European Union (EU-28) of 150GW in case of a share of 80% of all vehicles running on electricity by 2050. Does it mean a bunch of new nuclear plants in perspective?

Eventually, the business model of the station itself is very questionable. The EY study made in France and presented end of last year was making the proof that it was very difficult to reach a ROI of only 5% for standard low power public charging stations. We can make the easy bet that a high power charging station, so much more expensive than what is currently being deployed, will be a financial abyss for the communities and local territories who will be asked to subsidize this global economic dead end…

The same study demonstrated that hydrogen refuelling stations generating their own green hydrogen thanks to electrolysis, were profitable with a 10% ROI, and much greater IRR over 15 years. Refuelling stations that recharge our Fuel Cells Electric Vehicles in only five minutes, for two to three times more range than batteries, without any danger, and simultaneously bringing an efficient storage solution to the more and more intermittent grid rather than weakening it like fast electric chargers do. Are we going haywire? There is a bug in the battery buzz… Think it twice.

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About the author

Bertrand Chauvet

Bertrand Chauvet

CEO of Seiya Consulting, board member and Treasurer of France Hydrogène, Publisher of Hydrogen Today.

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